A few people have contacted me recently asking how they use the Freedom of Information Act to access documents held by the government or other public authorities (including schools and Ofsted). I’m always delighted to help but I also understand people want to be able to do things for themselves. Hence, I’ve put together three blogs: an entry level guide (this one), a medium guide (next week), and an advanced one (the week after that). This one is generic, the later ones will focus on edu-requests.
8 Easy Steps to Completing a Freedom of Information Request
1. Know that the law is on your side. The presumption is always that you can have a document. It is down to the public authority to demonstrate why exceptions should be made and info be hidden. Hence, never think an authority is granting you a favour when they give you information. It’s ours. If the authority is tax-payer funded (it will be) then all of us paid it to be created and you have a legal right to see it unless there is a good (by which I mean ‘legal’) reason that you should not. This doesn’t mean you have the right to be a nuisance (more on that below), but starting with the mindset you have the right to see information is helpful for keeping up your determination in the face of people annoyed that you want to use your rights.
2. To get information, just ask for it. It’s genuinely that simple. Any written request for info sent to a public authority is technically covered under the FOI Act, even if you failed to mention it. That said, save yourself some hassle and always email and say that (A) you are requesting information under the Freedom of Information Act, and (B) Be clear about what you want (the more specific the better). Remember: this is about documents and information. So don’t be asking smart-arse questions like “Why did the Ministry of Hats think it was appropriate to spend money on x?”. That’s a question, not a request for information. More useful would be: “Please release the budget for the Ministry of Hats and any evaluation or audits of how that money was spent”.
3. The easiest way to ask for information is via whatdotheyknow.com. Once registered click the Make a Request tab. You will then be able to search for an authority (I typed Department for Education into the box). A list will appear under the title Top Search Results. From there, click the required authority name and a second box appears to the right. Once you’ve read the relevant information and checked it is the correct department you click Make a request to this authority and it will take you to a messaging page.
The handy ‘message’ box you see on the next page already has an intro written for you. Add a ‘summary line’ (think of this like an email subject request) and then complete the information you require.
Once sent you can use the View Requests tab to keep track of all your requests. Brilliantly, the WDTK website emails you if your response becomes overdue and emails when you get a response.
4. Public authorities have 20 working days to answer your request. They can let you know it will take up to 20 more if the request requires more consideration. Somewhat uniquely, schools must reply within the shorter period of either (a) 20 working days excluding school holidays, OR (b) 60 working days. Put a note in your calendar and watch for the date. Authorities will often let these dates slip. Remind them. Send them an email telling them that it is a legal requirement to meet the deadline and if they must extend they should let you know and give you a reason why.
5. There is a cost limit to requests. If you go over it, your request will be rejected. Hence, don’t be greedy. Public authorities do not have endless cash. To keep requests manageable authorities only have to fulfil them if doing so will ‘cost’ less than £600 for central government and £450 for other public authorities. Judging request cost is almost impossible from home so you sometimes just have to ask for what you want and see what the authority says. If your request is too large, the authority should let you know and give you a chance to submit another request limiting the scope of the information sought. [NB: Don’t be tempted to send 10 separate requests thinking this will get you around the cost issue. Any requests you make to an authority within 60 days can be aggregated if the materials are similar in nature].
6. There are 23 reasons why a public authority might decline your request. These reasons are called ‘exemptions’ The public authority must tell you which one(s) they are ‘relying’ on if they refuse to answer your request. Some exemptions are ‘absolute’ – this means that once the information is labelled as being in the realm of this exemption, it automatically stops it from going into your hands. “Information dealing with security matters”, for example, are in this category. Other exemptions are ‘qualified’ – this means that a ‘public interest’ test ought to be carried out which balances problems with releasing information against the benefits of it. The full list of exemptions is here. It’s worth checking, but if you’re a mere FOI-dabbler and you receive back a refusal on the basis of an exemption that sounds a bit spurious I’d ask Twitter for help with checking its validity rather than puzzling over the law. (Worth noting: “it’s not our policy to give out this information” and “we don’t want to give you this because it’s embarrassing” are NOT real exemptions. However much the government might wish they were).
7. If you don’t think the authority has made the right decision, or if you think the FOI process has not been followed properly, you can ask for an internal review. This should be completed within 20 days though authorities can take up to 40. During independent review another person, not involved in answering the request the first time, should review the information and the prior response and consider if the exemption was used correctly. When you ask for the review, state what you think was wrong in the original process/reply. “I did not get the answer I want” is not a good enough reason to go to review. If that’s all you have to go on I strongly suggest you don’t waste time with a review.
8. Be nice. There are two reasons for this. One is legal: authorities can refuse to answer requests if they are written in a ‘vexatious’ manner. This sounds scary but as long as you are not being completely unreasonable you’re unlikely to find yourself being totally ignored. Besides, the second reason is far more important. FOI officers are real human beings who go to work to do a job. They are not there to be abused by members of the public. My disgruntlement about FOIs is very rarely down to the officers dealing with the request and almost always down to slowness among people they are liaising with. Also, FOI requests take time and a lot of effort from many people. If you’re nice, people tend to be nice back and it makes the whole process much more pleasant. This doesn’t mean you can’t reiterate expectations on deadlines, or challenge nonsense exemptions (in fact, I strongly suggest you do), BUT if you can handle your communications with grace and kindness you’ll find the whole experience much much easier and sometimes, it’s even fun!
Finally – I have one last thing to ask, cajole, persuade, beg of you – use this power carefully. The Freedom of Information Act is a brilliant law, but it’s also a fragile one. The Coalition have already suggested they wish to limit the ability to make requests and they use ‘misuse’ as a get-out clause. So: be specific, be nice, be respectful of cost, and always ask yourself if you really feel this information ought to be out in the public sphere. Once you’ve cleared those hurdles – go for your life. Good luck!
There’s a lot more that could be said about FOI, but I was trying to keep things simple for now. If you have any particular questions please put them in the comments below and I’ll do my best to answer them.